Op-ed: Berkeley, not Big Soda, knows what’s best for Berkeley

If an alien were to drop into Berkeley this election season, one could not fault her for presuming that the staunchest protector of our community’s collective wellbeing is the American Beverage Association, the bank and voice of Big Soda.

Loudly and ubiquitously, Big Soda professes its concern for us from placards plastered on our bus stops, bulletins be-decking our BART stations, campaign signs splashed around our traffic circles and roadway medians (the subject of a cease-and-desist letter from the City Clerk), and the massive digital billboard lighting our way along I-80.

Judging from the breadth and fervor of Big Soda’s presence here, our alien visitor could reasonably conclude that without its helpful hand, Berkeley citizens would surely lead themselves to ruin by supporting Measure D.

What the unsuspecting newcomer would understandably fail to recognize, though, is abundantly clear to those of us who actually live here: Big Soda’s brief and shockingly expensive display of purported interest in our welfare is nothing more than the self-interested lashing out of a massive and manipulative industry that perceives a threat to its own bottom line.

Big Soda feigns distress that some sweet drinks would not be subject to Measure D. But when was the last time you saw a teenager walking down the street chugging down a quart of milk? Measure D focuses on sodas and other sugar-sweetened drinks, because they’re the primary source of the problem.

Big Soda expresses outrage that certain coffee drinks aren’t taxed, which is actually false. Measure D would apply to the sweetened syrups that coffee stores add to many coffee drinks, significantly increasing their sugar content.

Big Soda alleges that Measure D is a “regressive” tax that will be paid by low-income communities. In fact, the tax (which is applied to distribution, not retail sale) covers drinks consumed across the economic spectrum, and if the price of one drink becomes burdensome to a consumer, he or she can choose healthier options that are not taxed.

Finally, Big Soda cries “nanny state”, while it spends millions of dollars (almost $2m so far, and the election is still almost a month away) trying to tell our community how to manage its own affairs. With this level of spending to advance its own agenda, Big Soda’s campaign against Measure D looks like the offspring of Mary Poppins and Godzilla.

In short, Berkeley voters shouldn’t be fooled by Big Soda’s finger-wagging and tail-swinging. Big Soda didn’t care about Berkeley when our schools’ nutrition education programs lost their funding. They didn’t care about Berkeley when obesity began to rise. And they certainly didn’t care about Berkeley when the American epidemic of Type II diabetes showed up here.

That epidemic arrived in my house in Berkeley in January, 2012. For a number of weeks, I had been troubled by unquenchable thirst. I had no other symptoms, though, and there was no history of diabetes in my family. I was a bit overweight, but not terribly so. And I had always been generally healthy. But eventually, the thirst was enough to send me to the doctor.

Diabetes is diagnosed, unsurprisingly, based on a measurement of blood sugar. There are a couple of basic tests that are quick and easy to perform, the results of which indicate how well a person’s body is processing sugar. One test looks at the level of sugar in the blood at the moment the blood is drawn. Normally, for a fasting person, that number is somewhere in the range of about 70-120. Mine was 435. The other test reflects blood sugar level over the preceding 3 months. A normal measurement on this second test, called “hemoglobin A1C”, is below about 5.5, and diabetes is diagnosed above 6.5. Mine was 11.2. When my doctor’s office called me after the results came in, they told me that the usual response to numbers like mine is immediately to send an ambulance to take the patient directly to the hospital for emergency intervention, but in my case, given the absence of symptoms, they asked me come to the office right away to set up a treatment plan.

Suddenly, in a brief moment on a Friday afternoon a few days before my 20th wedding anniversary, I became a person with a chronic and potentially dangerous disease that I would have to manage for the rest of my life. In that same moment, I also gained the knowledge that my two children, both of whom currently attend Berkeley High School, are, and will remain for the rest of their lives, at higher risk of developing diabetes than I ever would have dreamed.

I was, initially, paralyzed by the implications of this news. I remember standing in front of the refrigerator early the next morning considering my breakfast options. I had not yet had a chance to learn much about a diabetic diet, and as my gaze flitted from one food item to another, I thought, “I have no idea which of these things will kill me.” After several minutes stuck in this frightening limbo, I just closed the fridge and walked away.

Two days later, armed with mounds of Internet research, several new books and magazines, a blood glucose meter, a new prescription and a spot in a 12-hour diabetes management course at UCSF, my wife and I were beginning to come to terms with our new reality.

The fact is that diabetes can be managed over a long period of time, and for now at least, mine is. My numbers are back in the normal range, and I’m no longer taking medication. With significant changes in my diet and a serious commitment to regular exercise (things all of us should be doing anyway), I remain generally healthy and optimistic about the future.

But diabetes is a progressive disease for which there is no known cure, and until that changes, I will never be free of it, or of the potential devastating consequences — blindness, heart problems, amputations — it can eventually bring. The most potent tool I have to wield against those ever-present threats is information, to which, thanks to fortunate circumstances for which I deserve no credit, I readily have access.

Not everyone with diabetes is so lucky. That’s one reason why, according to recent research conducted at UCLA, diabetics in low-income communities, where the tools I got so easily can be much harder to find and use, are ten times more likely than those in higher-income communities to lose a limb — lose a limb –to the disease.

Add to that the firmly-established facts that sugar-sweetened beverages, including sodas and so-called “energy” drinks, are by far the single biggest contributor to excess calories in the American diet; that Big Soda spends millions promoting increased soda consumption, particularly in low-income communities and particularly to children, but virtually nothing promoting health in those same communities; and that a third of all children, and half of all children of color, who are alive today will develop diabetes over the course of their lives, and you get a new appreciation for the true meaning of the word “regressive”.

Against this backdrop, Big Soda’s carpet-bombing approach to Measure D is not merely misguided and dishonest. To me, as a Berkeley resident whose kids will have the threat of diabetes looming over them for the rest of their lives, it’s deeply offensive. I will vote for Measure D because it’s a smart step toward reducing risk, carefully crafted to target the well-documented source of a major threat to our health. I couldn’t care less what Big Soda thinks about it, and their ham-handed efforts to bully my community into protecting their interests just makes me mad.

If our alien visitor sticks around for the election, she’ll see the passage of Measure D, and learn who really looks out for Berkeley.

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Eric Gorovitz is a Berkeley resident, a parent of two Berkeley High School Students, and a Type II diabetic. He has volunteered in support of Measure D, including advocating for it in the media, and is one of the designated media spokespeople for Berkeley vs. Big Soda.